Three-quarters of Primate Species in Decline

January 23, 2017
Kerry Lengyel

New research shows that 75% of the 505 known primate species are in decline and 60% are threatened with extinction.

Three-quarters of primate species are in decline and about 60% are threatened with extinction, according to a study from a team of 31 primatologists.

The study, published this month in the journal Science Advances, took stock of every known primate species to judge how they were managing. This included a total of 505 known species ranging from tiny mouse lemurs, which weigh about an ounce, to 450-pound gorillas.

The current state of primates is a direct result of habitat devastation caused by agriculture, hunting, and industrial activities such as mining. Deforestation, though, has also allowed scientists to discover many primate species because it is now easier to reach new populations that once were remote. In fact, 85 new primate species have been identified since 2000.

With threats almost entirely caused by humans, the only way to change the declining numbers of primates is to realize what effect the human population has on other life.

“Despite the impending extinction facing many of the world’s primates, we remain adamant that primate conservation is not yet a lost cause, and we are optimistic that the environmental and anthropogenic pressures leading to population declines can still be reversed,” study researchers argued.

And it behooves humans to save primates from extinction because these animals have a direct effect on our ecosystem. The diverse life in these regions helps support the diets and local economies of the people who live there. For example, primates move pollen between trees when they eat fruits and leaves; they also pass seeds in their droppings, which allow plant life to regenerate and flourish.

The threat against each species is different—some are critically endangered and others only threatened. Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, gibbons, and every other species of ape is threatened, while 87% of lemur species are. The brown-headed spider monkey is critically endangered, while researchers say there are fewer than 30 Hainan gibbons, a species of ape, left in the world.

Many primates are clinging to life because of deforestation, which has been largely caused by palm oil production, soy production, rubber production, logging, livestock farming, and ranching wiping out the trees.

And the decrease is happening all over the world. Palm oil plantations are completely replacing the forests in Southeast Asia where the most diverse selection of primates live. These palm oil plantations are necessary due to demand for the oil in Western countries for use in items ranging from lipstick to biodiesel fuel.

A huge number of primates are also being killed for their meat, as well as for body parts, which some believe have special healing powers.

Exploiting the forest habitats on which primate species thrive is needlessly destructive, and if we continue on the current path, primates will no longer exist.

Professor Paul Garber, who co-led the study, explained, “Sadly, in the next 25 years, many of these primate species will disappear unless we make conservation a global priority.”

There are cases where species can be brought back from the brink of extinction, but we have to act now and fast. The intense destruction of tropical forests makes this an extremely difficult task, but not an impossible one.